One day I went in for lunch and discovered that she had quit the restaurant and seemingly vanished. A year or so later, though, she called to tell me she had opened her own restaurant. When I'd been a waiter, the last thing I wanted was to open my own place, so it never occurred to me that Ann had ambitions beyond hauling plates of tiger-cry beef and spicy fried rice. I hurried to check out her first Thai Place, and my heart sank at the sight of the dreary paneled dining room. But Ann's food was excellent, and her unique personality -- think the Thai version of Anjelica Huston -- made the suburban location an instant draw. (It soon eclipsed the Bangkok Pavilion in popularity.)
"The Thai Place was the only reason I ever went to Johnson County," says former restaurateur Charlene Welling, who cofounded the original Classic Cup in Westport with her ex-husband, Dan. "That's why I'm so tickled that Ann's opened her newest restaurant in our old location."
The brand new Thai Place, the third in Liberda's growing empire, is the fanciest yet, with crisp white tablecloths, heavy blue-and-white china and gilded religious icons. Hanging on the wall are two huge framed portraits of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his mate, Queen Sirikit.
"That's not how they look now," the waitress whispered on our first visit to the new restaurant. "They're both much older and fatter now."
Who isn't? Well, Ann Liberda for one. She hasn't aged at all, despite operating three restaurants in far-flung locations. It doesn't hurt that she has plenty of help from her children. "My son Ted is overseeing the Westport location, and Michael is in charge of the Blue Springs location," she says. "I'm pretty much at the Overland Park space, and I'm planning to open another restaurant in the next six or seven months, to be managed by my daughter Chiara."
Liberda's ambitions have made her the city's best-known Thai restaurateur, so it's not surprising that the two-month-old Westport location is her own personal Bang Pa-in Palace. Her imported fabrics and artwork have erased all memories of the ill-fated final redecoration of the Westport Classic Cup. (Inexplicably, the post-Welling owners had transformed it from a stylish urban bistro into Dracula's castle). On all three of my visits, the sunny dining room and the outdoor patio were packed with Midtown hipsters of all ages and colors: lithe young lovers, middle-aged sophisticates, sun-bronzed gay youth in matching Dolce & Gabanna sandals and a quartet of beautiful Asian teenagers.
Happily, chef Ted Liberda's food is as visually stimulating as the décor and the patrons. The 23-year-old culinary school graduate is putting a more fashionable spin on his mother's signature dishes and has added a separate page of rotating specials to the familiar menu every week. One of his recent innovations is Kiew wan Spaghetti, a Thai twist on the traditional Italian spaghetti noodle. (The name "translates as green and sweet," Ted says.) He drenches the pasta in a light sauce of fresh basil and a gingery green curry paste, then tosses it with vegetables, grilled chicken and shrimp. It was a perfect summer supper on one oppressively hot Friday night.
The same evening, my friend Dennis marveled at the sweetness and fire in the chopped meat and chilies that make up Ann's Mother-in-Law Beef. "Are you sure this is 'mild'?" he asked me before taking a gulp of ice water. I reminded him of something Liberda had told me years ago: "Americans think mild means no spice. The Thai think mild means medium hot."
At the Thai Place, spicy food is the real thing (unlike this city's Tex-Mex joints, where chefs extinguish all chile heat before sending dishes out of their kitchens). Liberda's restaurant is no place for sissies, but chef Ted does include some relatively demure dishes on the menu. One such offering was a grilled chicken breast brushed with a tangy, amber-colored tamarind glaze resting across a jumble of fried rice dotted with raisins, scallions, cashews and pineapple chunks.
My friend Bob declared the dish "fabulous" but couldn't finish it -- our little group had indulged in too many gorgeous appetizers before dinner. The double order of stuffed chicken wings had been my bright idea. I'm not only a fan of the way these things taste but also intrigued by the mechanics of their complicated construction -- which involves carefully cutting the meat off the wings; mixing it with pork, crab, shiitake mushrooms and bean-thread noodles; then reconstructing it back on a bone, steaming it, dipping it in batter and deep-frying the whole thing. Each wing comes out crunchy and hot on the outside, tender and succulent inside. And Lou Jane had insisted on the Jumbo Crazy Salad, a heap of marinated squid, shrimp, scallops and mussels, all lightly grilled and splashed with fresh lime juice, then brought out as a free-form sculpture on a bed of tumbled greens.
Debbie, who had turned up her nose at the chicken wings, loved it. She indulged in the fat pillows of scallops and pink curls of shrimp until our server brought out the next course: a china bowl of Thom Yum Goong under a cloud of lemongrass-scented steam. I ladled out four tiny bowls of the topaz broth, which swirled with chopped scallions, bits of red pepper, kaffir lime leaves and plump shrimp.
We could have stopped right there, but I insisted on sampling Thai barbecue, a brand of chicken and ribs one doesn't find at Gates or Bryant's. The chicken was a juicy roasted breast coyly peeking out from a sheer crust of chili-scented mahogany glaze; the thick pork spare ribs were drizzled with a vaguely sugary sauce.
Debbie chose a chopped dungeness crab floating in a bowl of creamy, mild yellow curry sauce. It was a wise choice -- though it was nearly impossible to eat given that we had little more than our knives and forks and a wobbly shell-cracker to attack the crab's red armor. "They need to supply real implements of destruction," Lou Jane suggested.
We needed nothing more than spoons, however, when it came to dessert. I had sampled the green-tea ice cream on a previous visit and found it flavorless, but I ordered it again for the sake of consensus. "It has a taste all right," Lou Jane announced. "It just isn't a tea taste. Maybe pistachio?" Fortunately the coconut and litchi-nut ice creams had more potent flavors, and the caramel-colored baked custard, made with coconut milk, was smooth and satisfying. We really wanted that day's featured dessert -- sweet sticky rice with fruit -- but after we ordered it, the charming young waiter returned to the table and stammered, "It's on the menu but not in the kitchen tonight. May I suggest something else?"
No need. After such an elaborate meal, I was ready to leave the palace.